Great Books for Studying Native American History: High School

On the 150th anniversary of the Medicine Lodge Treaty (a trio of problematic agreements that forced the Plains Indians onto reservations) ensure that your high school U.S. history studies include the country’s marginalized original inhabitants. History books may give their stories short shrift, but you don’t have to. These books are a great addition to your U.S. History reading list.

Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is at the top of our essential reading list for good reason: Brown’s incisive, authoritative account of the systematic 19th century destruction of Native American populations by the United States illuminates the perspective of the Dakota, Ute, Sioux, Cheyenne, and other tribes who lived through it. This is not an easy book to read, but it’s an important one.

To truly understand the contrast between Native American life (in North and South America) before and after European contact, you need to understand what Native American life was like before Columbus et al arrived on the scene. Charles C. Mann’s two-book collection 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created focus on just that, highlighting the rich and varied culture that Columbus and his fellow explorers encountered and the catastrophic, civilization-shaking changes that occurred in the aftermath of that contact.

In Exiled in the Land of the Free: Democracy, Indian Nations and the U.S. Constitution, Oren Lyons collects eight essays by Native American writers that explore the ways in which the U.S. Constitution and the idea of "American democracy" were shaped in part by the ideas of Native American traditions—even though Native Americans were denied the benefits of the freedoms they helped to establish. Similarly, Jack Weatherford entertainingly examines ignored and forgotten contributions to medicine, ecology, architecture, agriculture, and democracy in Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World.

This Day in North American Indian History is a delightful and useful reference book for your shelf—in addition to biographical and historical information, it contains a 365-day calendar of major events in Native American history (for both American continents), from the achievements of ancient empires to modern-day Native American activism.

David Grann uncovers a particularly dark chapter of U.S. history in Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. In the 1920s, the Osage Indian reservation be- came an unexpected boom town when oil was discovered on reservation land— the Osage became the richest people per capita in the world. Then, someone started killing them off, one by one. One of the FBI’s first major investigations, the Osage murders exposed a sinister conspiracy that still feels shocking almost a century later.

Killing the White Man’s Indian: The Reinvention of Native Americans at the End of the 20th Century by Fergus M. Bordewich takes a proactive approach to the topic, acknowledging Native American history in the wake of European/United States aggression but focusing the bulk of his attention on the future of Native Americans being developed right now on reservations across the country. If we’re just looking at the past, we’re viewing Indians through the same distancing lenses that allowed our treatment of them to happen in the first place, says Bordewich, and his book aims to open the door to more meaningful considerations.

Also set in the modern Indian world, Sherman Alexie’s short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven captures the grim reality of life in and around the Spoke Indian Reservation. You can feel the tension between the traditions of the Native American past and modern Native American existence on every page. (Honestly, you could just go read the complete works of Sherman Alexie and be glad you did.)

Vine Deloria Jr. takes the offensive in Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, a darkly funny, challenging treatise on the problems with the way the modern United States wants to romanticize and patronize the country’s original inhabitants. Deloria’s disdain for U.S. values, especially capitalism, is blatant through the work, but his anger feels like a legitimate response to centuries of systemic racism and genocide.


This list is from the fall 2017 issue of HSL. Look for upcoming lists of great books on Native American history for middle grades and elementary school—we couldn’t fit everything we wanted into the magazine, so we’re publishing the extras on the blog this November.